Best Daytona 500 Debut No. 4: Unser Undaunted In '68 (Note: This is the second installment in a five-part series on some of the best Daytona 500 debuts by either rookie of the year candidates or drivers making what amounted to an initial "NASCAR...
Best Daytona 500 Debut No. 4: Unser Undaunted In '68
(Note: This is the second installment in a five-part series on some of the best Daytona 500 debuts by either rookie of the year candidates or drivers making what amounted to an initial "NASCAR cameo" appearance in the event. Today, we take a look at No. 4 in the countdown -- Al Unser's fourth-place finish in 1968.)
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Feb. 6, 2009) -- Here's a good one. The year was 1968 and the Great American Race was a relative youngster in the world of big-time auto racing, being held for the 10th time to be exact. Nonetheless, it was already attracting Indy-car drivers seeking to test their mettle against the best stock-car drivers in the world.
Mario Andretti had won the Daytona 500 in 1967. Other open-wheelers such as A.J. Foyt, Gordon Johncock, Johnny Rutherford, Dan Gurney and Troy Ruttman had also given it a go.
Unser chose to do so for the first time in '68.
Driving the No. 6 Dodge Charger for Cotton Owens, Unser, then 28 years old, qualified eighth via his time-trial speed. The two qualifying races for the 500 were cancelled because of rain.
He led a lap, and at the finish, was the last of only four drivers on the lead lap trailing race winner Cale Yarborough.
Unser finished ahead of Andretti -- and also in front of Foyt, who would eventually win the 500, in 1972.
It was Unser's only Daytona 500 appearance.
Unser Always Was A 'Big-Stage' Performer
Notable 500 First-Timers in 1968: Dave Marcis, Earl Brooks, Bud Moore.
The Intangible: Guess you could say there were a couple of significant "x-factors" at work in 1968. To start, speeds were up considerably -- cars exceeded 185 mph at Daytona for the first time. David Pearson even reached the outlandish speed of 190.746 during practice. Cale Yarborough ended up with the pole, based on a 189.222 lap.
The Recap: Yarborough outdueled LeeRoy Yarbrough, winning by a mere second, then flew his small plane home to Timmonsville, S.C., where friends and family waited at the airstrip for an impromptu celebration. ... The race had 11 caution periods for a total of 60 laps; both were race records. One caution was caused by Andretti, whose Lap 105 wreck was the lowlight of the defending champion's day, after which a number of NASCAR drivers "remarked" on his all-out driving style. ... Unser led Lap 27 and was able to avoid the recurring mayhem during the long afternoon.
The Follow-Up: For Unser, the 1968 Daytona 500 was somewhat like the '67 500 was for Andretti -- a preview of greatness. Andretti went on to the win the Indianapolis 500 in 1969 and the Formula One championship in 1978. Unser? All he did was win the Indianapolis four times, an all-time record he shares with A.J. Foyt and Rick Mears. ... Unser never raced in the Daytona 500 again after 1968. He ended his career with only five starts in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series -- three at the old Riverside, Calif. road course and one at Watkins Glen International, with Daytona being the sole oval. ... Unser did come back to Daytona eight times between 1976-93 for International Race of Champions events and usually looked right at home. He won the 1986 IROC event at Daytona and finished third in 1991.